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The Boys of Summer

December 4, 2010

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, 1952

About a month ago, my husband and I ran into Al Newman, one of the infielders on the 1987 and 1991 Twins World Series teams, at our local Buffalo Wild Wings. My husband recognized him immediately; I had no idea who he was. My husband was too intimidated to go over and introduce himself, but after a couple of Mike’s Hard Lemonades, I had no such inhibitions, and went over to shake his hand and strike up a conversation with him. He turned out to be a very real, genuine guy, who was coaching for one of our local high school baseball teams. His ex-wife worked for the same school district my daughter was in, and our kids were about the same age. It turned out (when my husband finally came over) that he and Al had played on many of the same fields growing up throughout Minnesota. When I asked why he wasn’t wearing either of his World Series rings, he smiled and said he didn’t like to draw attention to himself.  It was a great experience to meet him.

I think so many of us get overwhelmed by the cloak of celebrity that we forget famous people are still, in fact, people. Which is why I thought of our experience meeting Al Newman when I began to read Roger Kahn’s wonderful 1972 non-fiction book, The Boys of Summer. Kahn grew up a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan  in the shadow of Ebbets Field, and was later given the opportunity as a sportswriter to cover his favorite team during the tumultuous Jackie Robinson years of 1952-53, when baseball was just beginning to be integrated. Although he always kept his journalistic objectivity, Kahn became friends with the members of the team, and the second half of the book describes his journeys to reconnect with the different team members and their lives since they left baseball.

Kahn strove mightily and well to humanize men like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, who have become almost untouchable legends to baseball fans. Back then, before the lionization of athletes with Sportscenter highlights and multi-million dollar contracts, players were more like regular guys. None of the Dodgers traveled around with a posse of bodyguards or wore giant diamond earrings in their ears. In fact, almost none of the Dodgers turned out fabulously wealthy as a result of their playing days. Billy Cox, the third baseman, ended up a bartender, and outfielder George Shuba ended up working at the post office. Pitcher Carl Erskine became a stay-at-home dad for his disabled son Jimmy. Duke Snider at centerfield lost the farm he had always dreamed of after some bad investments. Second-baseman Jackie Robinson dealt gracefully with his son’s drug arrests and untimely death as well as his own health-related issues, and shortstop Pee Wee Reese was there for Kahn when Kahn’s son committed suicide. These guys were out in the real world, as real people, once their baseball days were done, faced with many of the same problems we have, with the added pressure of celebrity. Which I thought was pretty cool.

It was the parts of the book that talked about Jackie Robinson, pitcher Joe Black, and catcher Roy Campanella’s challenges of being the first black major league players, and the feelings of the team as the eyes of the world looked to see how they would handle integrated baseball that were so touching to me. The captain, Pee Wee Reese, refused to sign a petition other players had put forth refusing to play with the black players, and often publicly and genuinely showed his acceptance and affection for his black teammates both on and off the field (see the statue of Pee Wee and Robinson at Brooklyn’s KeySpan Park below the post). I was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s composure both at the plate and in the infield while angry white fans yelled racial epithets and made fun of him, and how he turned his anger into motivation to get great hits and make great plays at second base. His ability and courage changed the game of baseball forever, which is why his number has been retired for every single major league team, and players can wear it as a tribute on Jackie Robinson Day once a year.

“Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
— Pee Wee Reese, on the performance of his teammate, Jackie Robinson

With the early death of his father, and the subsequent deaths of the players Kahn idolized as the years passed, he asks the important questions of what we do with our lives, and what we leave behind us when we pass away. Obviously the Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the ’50’s will always be remembered as one of the best teams in baseball, but Kahn wanted them to be remembered for more than just a pile of statistics that become less meaningful as time goes on. He wanted them to be remembered as his friends, as real men who did a brave thing that other teams may not have had the strength and foresight to do, and as men who loved their teammates and families. I loved getting to know the Dodgers, so Kahn definitely succeeded with me.

At 474 pages, and written in the same year I was born, this book counts as the last book needed to meet the Mor-book-ly Obese challenge for the Chunkster Challenge, and should also get me a candle for the Birth Year Reading Challenge. Whoooo hoooo! I was excited there were still some books from the year I was born that weren’t written on papyrus.  😉

A statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside Brooklyn's KeyStone Park

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2010 4:05 pm

    Wow, what a sweet review. I haven’t read this one, but as a baseball fan it sounds like I should. And you’re right, the courage and composure of Jackie Robinson is an inspiration…a true American hero.

    • December 7, 2010 5:02 pm

      Seriously, no baseball fan should walk by this book. It was phenomenal. I hope you get a chance to check it out!

  2. December 10, 2010 12:32 pm

    Fantastic review, nicely framed by your good fortune in meeting Al Newman. It must have been great to talk to him! It’s hard to imagine how athletes can do what they do: an incarnation of grace under pressure.

    (Of course, back in the day, they did it for relatively low salaries, as you point out, while the owners raked in the dough, which is one justification for the exorbitant money the players make these days–go Red Sox! But I digress.)

    This sounds like a must read for the off season this year!

    • December 10, 2010 6:03 pm

      JG you are right on. There was a whole chapter I neglected to mention about how much the owner of the Dodgers ended up being worth (in the millions back then, which was really saying something) compared to the athletes that actually put the butts in the seats, so to speak. 🙂 Nice to see the money getting spread around more these days…although I bet the owners still come out way ahead of their players even now.


  1. The Boys of Summer…Roger Kahn | Past as Prologue

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